1 Jan

Magical too was swinging Chelsea, our new orbit in London. Then, out of the blue, my mother sickened and died, and the orbit imploded. Returning home from school months later, I was perplexed to find a Pan Am stewardess sitting with my father. Her name is Lynne, and while she quit Pan Am in 1971 to marry my father, the airline remained a fixture in our lives for years to come. It was head spinning at first, a Pan Am stewardess was my new mother, and over time, her tales of shopping in Beirut, cocktailing in Tokyo, and flying with G.I.s on their furloughs from Vietnam only heightened the mystique. We jetted around Europe on Pan Am, and her Pan Am friends, sexy stews and gay blades alike, were fascinating to no end. Being a kid loose amid those at-home parties in 1970s London, with the records spinning and ice cubes clinking late into the night, was pure magic. In 1981, Pan Am relocated us back to Los Angeles, but by that time the writing was already on the wall.

Pan Am was a family, and the loss of that family had a serious, long-term impact on the lives and psyches of its employees,” states Dr. Helen Davey, a former Pan Am stewardess turned psychoanalyst and Huffington Post contributor whose award-winning A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Fall of Pan American World Airways examines the post-collapse trauma experienced by Pan Am employees. “It was the best job in the world,” she says, “and when it was over, many people never recovered.”


“Gone but never forgotten,” Pan Am has stayed aloft through individual friendships, reunions, and official groups, including The Clipper Pioneers (retired pilots), The Pan Am Retirees Club (retired ground staff), and World Wings International, the philanthropic organization of some 2,400 former flight attendants. “Our camaraderie and love for the airline kept the family together,” says Anne Sweeney, her Pan Am career spanning the carrier’s golden decades in successive roles including stewardess, in-flight director, and manager of public relations, and today, World Wings International spokesperson and board member.

Thanks to former Pan Am stewardess turned Hollywood producer Nancy Hult Ganis, Pan Am is flying again—on the airwaves. Debuting this past September on ABC, Pan Am recalls the airline’s glory days, with a key message to convey. “My goal as a storyteller is to inspire a new generation of women with our experiences from four decades ago,” says Ganis, who flew from 1968 to 1976. “We were given real responsibility, which freed us from a world then largely defined by the mythology of Playboy.”

The Pan Am faithful were relieved when the show, contrary to early rumors, was not carnalized to compete with the now canceled Playboy Club. Satisfying the Pan Am cognoscenti was one challenge; appealing to the post-Pan Am generation was another. “Most of the [show’s] writers were not even born when I was doing this,” said Ganis in an interview.


Pan Am’s larger-than-life mythology does not package easily in the six-act structure of a TV show. Soaring from one milestone to the next over its 64-year history, Pan Am and its visionary founder, Juan Terry Trippe, are synonymous with the story of commercial aviation. The airline that brought the Beatles to America in 1964 and launched several 007 adventures created its own cultural forcefield: featuring the Pan Am “space clipper” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick actually envisioned Pan Am taking humanity into outer space.

What was it like at the original “too big to fail” company, one of the greatest enterprises of all time? Interwoven with details of Pan Am’s remarkable rise and fall, family members recall their days with the “Queen of the Skies.”

Born in Seabright, New Jersey in 1899, Trippe descended from a long line of mariners, but his passion was for the skies. At ten, he saw Wilbur Wright’s 1909 flight around the Statue of Liberty; following bomber pilot training and graduation from Yale in 1921, he culminated a series of aviation start-ups with the 1927 merger of three small carriers into Pan American Airways. Operations began on October 28, 1927 with a mail delivery from Key West to Havana, and on January 16, 1928, Pan Am inaugurated the first-ever scheduled US commercial passenger flight on the same route.

By July 1933, when Trippe appeared on the cover of Time and Pan American moved from Miami into its new headquarters on the 58th and 59th floors of Gotham’s Chrysler Building, Trippe, aided by his friend Charles Lindbergh, was conquering the world. In 1929, the two men and their wives had embarked on a route development mission described by Davey as “a head-spinning 9,000-mile, 16-nation, 14-hours-per-day, four to five stops-a-day, three-week adventure.” Lindbergh, who served as a technical advisor for 45 years, was instrumental in planning Pan Am’s trans-Atlantic routes, but it was Trippe—his aspirations famously symbolized by the antique globe in his office—who now commanded the skies.

He was driven by two ambitions: to make air travel affordable to all, and to use Pan Am, as the “chosen instrument” of the US government, to further America’s global interests. “Pan Am’s world lay outside of the United States,” writes Davey. “Trippe negotiated exclusive landing rights in foreign lands with princes, potentates, dictators, prime ministers, and pashas, most often in secrecy behind closed doors. His genius was astounding; nobody could out-negotiate him.”

Trippe relentlessly charted new territory while developing Pan Am’s global infrastructure, often in danger zones. Skipper of the skies, he gave aviation the vernacular of the seas: the Sikorsky seaplanes he named Clippers were the flying boats that completed the first trans-Pacific flight (San Francisco to Manila in 1935 during the heart of the Great Depression) and the first trans-Atlantic flight (New York to Marseille via Lisbon in 1939).

In 1945, after significant wartime service that included building 50 airports in 15 countries and training legions of flight personnel, Trippe’s pioneering “tourist-class” seat set the stage for air travel as we know it today. It was the advent of the era when, as the New York Times termed it, “flying was caviar,” and nobody served luxury better than Pan Am.

In 1954, fifteen years before my maiden voyage, Bruce Haxthausen, then 11, took his first Pan Am flight, accompanying his mother and his father, a Pan Am cargo manager since 1940, on a summer transfer to Sydney. Talk about the ultimate vacation: flying first-class aboard the double-deck, four-propeller Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, Pan Am’s signature craft of that era. Haxthausen hopped from San Francisco to Australia via Honolulu, the coral atolls of the Canton Islands and Fiji. “I remember the sleeper seats, and spiral staircase down to the lower deck lounge, and flying low over oceans and coral reefs,” says Haxthausen, his eyes dancing in recollection. “It was a magical, life-changing experience.”

When his father was transferred to New York’s Idlewild Airport in 1960, Haxthausen worked as a check-in agent at Pan Am’s famed Worldport Terminal. Sadly dilapidated today, it once wondrously flowed passengers from curbside to the gate. From 1973 to 1981, he worked in public relations in the Pan Am building, before finishing his career with Air France. A loyalist to this day, he celebrates Pan Am for “putting aviation fuel in my veins.”


The advent of air travel ushered in new career possibilities—and barriers. While military airmen had a ready home in the cockpit for years to come, discrimination loomed for men in the cabin. “The airlines began trying out women on limited routes during World War II,” explains former Pan Am employee Kelly Cusack, curator of the website. According to Cusack, Pan Am’s original stewardess was Madeline Cuniff, who first flew in 1945 on the New York to Bermuda run before eventually serving as senior hostess at Pan Am’s VIP Clipper Club at JFK Airport. “That era was the beginning of the end for male stewards,” notes Cusack, “as airlines saw the commercial advantage of female sex appeal.” By 1958, the year Pan Am ushered in the jet age with the Boeing 707, men had virtually disappeared from the cabin; it would take male flight attendant Celio Diaz, Jr.’s 1969 lawsuit against Pan Am to compel the industry to change its hiring practices.

Before the freeze-out, though, men like Brooklyn, NY-born Paul Gronert enjoyed the freedom of the skies. Wanting to see the world, he applied for a steward’s job in 1945; too young at 19 for the required passport, he worked two years in customer service at LaGuardia. Hired for the cabin in 1947, Gronert spent the next four years crisscrossing the globe—and having the time of his life.

“I was born to entertain, darling,” says Gronert, lively still today, “and Pan Am was my stage.” Whether parading the cabin in a passenger’s fur coat or attending a La Cage Aux Folles party dressed as a pregnant bride, his theatrics were legendary. Hungover from a merry layover in London, Gronert and the crew’s preflight check overlooked the missing flatware. A remarkable bit of improvisation saved the day: after chopping the entire dinner into bite-sized pieces, Gronert invited the New York-bound passengers via the P.A. to mingle at “Pan Am’s new buffet-style Polynesian service.” Suspended for his troubles, he was reinstated based on commendation letters from passengers on the flight—written by Gronert himself.

The opportunity to see the world also attracted the many women who worked Pan Am’s cabins in the 1950s and 1960s. As faithfully portrayed in the new TV show, requirements were explicit: college degree, fluency in a foreign language, and, of course, young and attractive, with those famous girdle checks—but such was the price of admission to a company that was exceptional by design.

Posters such as “Our stewardesses know their way around the world better than most people know their way around the block” were compelling draws for women like Nancy Hult Ganis. “Though I had no designs on becoming a stewardess, the ads were intriguing, so I inquired at the Pan Am office in Detroit,” she recalls. “Asked back for an interview, I was shocked to find 500 women in line.” Only nine made the first cut; Ganis was one of only two hired. “Two weeks later, I was in Miami for training—and the adventure took off from there.”


The job was miles above ordinary. “Inspired by Juan Trippe, we felt a real sense of responsibility and respect for the company and the passengers,” says Ganis. “Asked to be ambassadors and diplomats to the world (Pan Am was the first American carrier to fly into Moscow), we were trusted with any situation that arose. It was an empowering time for young women.”

No airline could compare to Pan Am. “We were the best-dressed, highest paid people in the airline industry,” Diane Markwell, one of the first British women in Pan Am blue, said in a recent newspaper interview. “TWA stewardesses were looked down on as a bit raffish, BOAC were a bunch of dykes, and then there was us.”


Fellow Brit Sara Scheiner (then Atkinson) joined Pan Am in 1962 and transferred to New York in 1963. “Flying to New York was such a big deal in those days,” she recalls. “A whole posse of friends and family came to see me off.” She left in 1966 to marry a US Navy officer she had met aboard a Paris to D.C. flight, with fond memories of the good times. “The friendships were the best part,” she says, recalling once swapping skirts with a crewmate in a Lisbon hotel elevator after a laundry mix-up. “The door opened and there was the captain, Eugene Vaughn. He was furious, but we could not stop laughing.” In 1972, Vaughn famously tackled a North Vietnamese hijacker and after ordering the air marshal to shoot him, opened the back of the Saigon-bound 747 and pitched the body off the plane.

The first airline to order the Boeing 747, Pan Am also made history as the last commercial flight out of Saigon, getting 450 Pan Am and US Embassy staff, refugees, and orphans out ahead of the North Vietnamese tanks in April 1975. Well before that fateful day, Pan Am was ferrying American G.I.’s in and out of Vietnam. Working several of those R&R (Rest and Recreation) flights was my stepmother Lynne. “Picture a planeload of young soldiers leaving hell for escapes to places like Australia, Bangkok, and Tokyo,” she says. “We took special care of them.”

On one such flight, she and a pair of “bombshell” Norwegian twins promised topless coffee service to the soldier whose name got pulled from a hat. “The guys went wild when the twins disappeared into the cockpit—followed by pandemonium when the captain emerged shirtless with a coffee tray.” She adds a somber note. “It was much quieter going back to Vietnam.” Soon after she left in 1971, the good times began dying at Pan Am, too


Among the first men to rejoin Pan Am’s cabins in 1973, Bruce Gately remembers an uneasy transition back. “Passengers saw us as oddities, the pilots made derogatory jokes, and it was prudent to shield your gay identity,” says Gately, who is now with United. “There was even a code on application forms for weeding out OM’s or obvious mannerisms, meaning guys seen as too swishy.” Yet, like the women, male hires were of the highest caliber, and conditions improved, especially serving the more sophisticated clientele on international routes.

The good days for Pan Am were not quite over, even after a KLM plane errantly struck a Pan Am jet on the runway in Tenerife in 1977, killing 583 people in aviation’s worst-ever disaster. German-born Hans Vollmer, who joined Pan Am that year, gets goose bumps remembering his experiences jetting around the globe. “Being gay was far less controversial at Pan Am than at the other airlines,” he says, crediting the airline with ultimately “helping me become comfortable with being gay.” According to Vollmer, nearly 80 percent of Pan Am’s stewards were openly gay, a number that turned tragic when AIDS struck. “Pan Am was especially hard hit,” says Vollmer, who was actively involved with Pan Am’s contribution to the AIDS quilt. “It seemed like we lost somebody every day.” He has high praise for Pan Am’s handling of the crisis. “Management was extremely compassionate, putting an umbrella of protection over us all.”


The same cannot be said of Pan Am’s executives as the airline disintegrated in the 1980’s, documented in Robert Gandt’s 1995 book Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am. It would be an oversimplification to blame mismanagement alone for the airline’s demise. Starting with the National Airlines merger in 1980 that finally put Pan Am into domestic service, deregulation, debt, fuel costs, and mounting losses crippled the airline, to say nothing of the 1988 Lockerbie disaster. To this day, however, many former employees vilify former chairman and CEO C. Edward Acker and corporate raider Carl Icahn for heartlessly destroying the company. “We were willing to make concessions to save Pan Am,” recalls one former employee in confidence. “Instead, Acker and his cronies walked off with millions, and we were finished.”

Much of the traumatic aftermath explored by Dr. Helen Davey relates to the end of a shared experience characterized as “a love affair” and “a dream come true.” For Kelly Cusack, who started on the ramps at LaGuardia as an 18-year old in 1979 and worked his way up to sales and marketing roles, the pain was in losing a career he loved. “I was on a great trajectory,” he muses, “and then there was nothing.”
Yet, it is that very love that keeps Pan Am fueled and flying sky high. Before the TV show there were the movie and Broadway versions of Catch Me If You Can, the story of con man extraordinaire Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose real-life exploits included impersonating a Pan Am pilot on hundreds of flights as a teenager in the 1960’s. Today, the gentlemanly Abagnale serves on World Wings International’s advisory board. Why did he accept the mostly ambassadorial role, committing until 2020? “It’s a matter of pride and privilege,” he says. “Pan Am was one of kind.”



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